Presbyterians are no strangers to high office. Some have sought it, some have attained it, and some have helped to shape others who have held it.
John Witherspoon, the only member of the clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence, was the President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Among his students were James Madison, Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, William Bradford, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge. From among his students came 37 judges (three of whom became justices of the U.S. Supreme Court), 10 Cabinet officers, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. senators, and 49 United States congressmen. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 presbyters had studied under Witherspoon.
Abraham Lincoln and his family never joined the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., but they worshiped there regularly. When beloved son Willie, age eleven, died, the Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor at the New York Avenue Church, presided at his funeral in the East Room of the White House, and when Lincoln was shot, it was Dr. Gurley who was called to his bedside. Dr. Gurley continued to provide pastoral care to the Lincoln family.
William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, was nominated for president and ran three times, losing every time. A ruling elder, he also ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1923 — only once, but he lost that election, too. Brother William might not be my favorite ancestor, but then again, you can’t pick your relatives.
Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse, was thoroughly Presbyterian. Dwight Eisenhower was born into a tradition that became the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but shortly after his first inauguration he was baptized in a Presbyterian service and remained a member of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Presbyterian Church until his death.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian, too. He says the Bible is his favorite book. Recently the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly wrote brother Donald an informative letter:
I am the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the denomination of the congregation in Queens, New York, where you were baptized. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) develops its policies through councils of teaching elders and ruling elders. At the national level it does that through the General Assembly. I would like to share with you the Presbyterian policies on refugees and immigrants.
Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. Presbyterians have a mission presence in many refugee-sending countries, including Syria and Lebanon, where we have been present since 1823. Our relationship with people of faith and communities in these countries gives us knowledge of the root causes of the flight of refugees and further cements a commitment to welcome.
Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.
As a Presbyterian I acknowledge my immigrant ancestors and my new immigrant sisters and brothers. I also respect that we came uninvited to a land already occupied by people. This creates a sense of humility about my citizenship that shapes my views on those who seek a place here. I hope you will find this helpful. I especially hope it will inform you on your policies going forward.
The Reverend Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
What a helpful letter. I hope brother Donald takes it heart.